Empty and full: living with the human condition

‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’

says the Teacher.

‘Utterly meaningless!

Everything is meaningless.’

(Ecclesiastes, 1:1)

Another rendering is that everything is vapour, insubstantial, empty. And most of us have experienced something of this emptiness in things and within. What am I doing with my life? What's been the point? Do I really want to spend my energy and time in this? Who am I anyway?

Mysteriously, provocatively perhaps, the Bible also contains these words:

...the fullness of him who fills all in all.’

(Ephesians 1:23, ESV)

Is life empty or full? It would be too easy to explain one away, perhaps the emptiness we try to avoid or the fullness that remains painfully elusive. But what if life is just both? Meaningless and meaningful. Empty and full. Surely death makes this so: makes everything so short it cannot contain significance; makes everything so short it is all so precious. What if the human experience not only has always been both - which these passages seem to at the least demonstrate - .but must be both: what if this is the human condition?


Well, then I tolerate the meaningless, even let it be, as it is. Most wisdom literature, along with recent scientific evidence on, e.g. anxiety, indicates that most of human suffering is because we can’t tolerate the emptiness and try to push it down, avoid or make it into something else. This just perpetuates the experience.

If we can stay awhile beside it, feel it’s seemingly formidable breadth, we come to taste the meaning of all too. We come to appreciate, acknowledge, enjoy and celebrate, loudly or quietly, where there is life in all its fullness. And we can let the meaningless teach us: perhaps it’s time to make a change, perhaps the status quo of our lives is not sustainable, perhaps one side of life, the shadow of all we currently experience and strive for, is draining the life out of us and now needs expression.

Equally, we tolerate the fullness. Yes, tolerate. Some of us go straight to fear that the good times will suddenly dissipate and give way to a freefall of terror. So we rarely feel safe enough to taste and enjoy anything. Some of us believe, secretly, that if we did give ourselves over to the fullness, then that act of belief will precipitate the fall. Or that it will make it worse as then we’d be the fool betrayed again. But all it does it steal us of the fullness of all things. And so, we have to learn to notice the spontaneous beauty, freedom and blessing around and within us, and to give ourselves over to the experience and energy it touches us with.


And when can do this for ourselves, we can have compassion with those who suffer in the various vanities of life, for we don’t have to run from it. We know it’s there and we know we can be right there next to it and survive. And we can rejoice with those in the fullness of it all, for we know what abandoned joy is. Thus, the fullness and emptiness of the human experience is the very meeting place with others; it’s where our lives get shared with another.

More, in this sharing or mis-sharing, in this with-ness or without-ness, in this understanding or misunderstanding, in such company or isolation, the fullness of all of life is filled more deeply or emptied almost entirely, and the emptiness of life is filled with company or drained to an unbearable void.

Living with the human condition

And so, the best sort of lives with the best sort of friendships ride the waves of fullness and emptiness, meaning and the meaninglessness, and they are all the better for it; the worst sort of lives, with the worst sort of friends, refuse to.

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